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Is on air, on sale now gone and forgotten?

By | Published on Wednesday 12 October 2011

Universal Music

Both Sony and Universal have admitted they are no longer routinely operating a system of ‘on air, on sale’. Universal says that it is still committed to the release strategy in principle, but that exceptions are made depending on marketing plans for individual artists, while Sony says schedules for releases and promotional work are set on a case by case basis.

As previously reported, back in January both majors indicated that they would apply on air, on sale across the board. This means that as soon as singles are serviced to radio they are made available to buy via download stores like iTunes and to listen to via streaming music platforms like Spotify, as opposed to the traditional method of having songs playing on the radio and TV a few weeks before actually go on sale.

The traditional method is designed to maximise first week sales in a bid to make the single chart high. Whereas, via on air on sale, those sales will be spread over three or four weeks. Records released that way will never outsell, in any one week, songs released under the traditional method, meaning they won’t perform as well in the charts. Pop labels argue that high single chart positions help them shift albums. All of which means on air, on sale can only work if everybody adopts that method, so no one has the advantage of maximised first week sales.

The reason for adopting on air, on sale is the belief that a lot of young music fans download tracks from illegal file-sharing networks in the weeks between them appearing on radio and TV and it going on sale because they have no other options. ie they would go a legal route if they could, but they are not patient enough to wait for the record company’s arbitrary release date. So that while the label may maximise their first week sales via the traditional approach, the overall number of units sold is less, because many fans have downloaded it illegally for free during the promotional period.

Music Week has been tracking how much Sony, Universal and their major label rivals EMI and Warner – whose commitment to on air, on sale was less firm from the go – have been using the on air, on sale system, and has noted on various occasions how many releases are still being promoted and released in the traditional way.

John Webster of the Music Managers Forum, probably the most vocal supporter of an air, on sale, admits that, despite the hype at the start of the year, the new approach has pretty much died already. He told Radio 1: “I’m very sad to see it effectively die already. To deny consumers the opportunity of buying something when they’ve heard it is to deny them an entry point to the market. The problem is it [on air, on sale] is pretty much dead as soon as one company doesn’t do it. It was doomed from the time it was voluntary and not compulsory. It needs to be everyone, and if it’s not everyone, it’s not going to work”.